Life Blog :: Paris

Dec 29 '07 11:59pm


I arrived around 7 AM this morning in Charles de Gaulle Airport on the outskirts of Paris. The overnight Air France flight from Boston was pleasant despite an infant crying the whole way and the sparse leg room, and I slept for an hour or two. The food was excellent - dinner included kouskous with shrimp, ravioli and white wine - and the passenger next to me, en route to visit family on the Ivory Coast, helped me with some French pronunciation and Paris itinerary planning. I had bought a mini Paris guide at Logan, the kind with the pen, compass, fold-out maps and travel guide. (The compass, it turned out, always pointed towards the bottom of the book, no matter which way the book was turned, but navigating according to the Seine River made it unnecessary.) I had also bought some euros before the flight, at the disheartening rate of €0.6 to $1.
The construction I had heard about at Charles de Gaulle has apparently ended, and the airport is very impressive. The architecture is ultra-modern; steel and glass structures, super-functional, aesthetically charming. Low-intensity green light illuminated the arrival terminal, running parallel to the departure terminals visible through the glass. Several trams, moving walkways and hallways later, I had passed through passport control in 15 seconds and entered the airport train station. (My baggage was checked through to Tel Aviv; I'll find out soon if that actually happened.) I purchased a Paris Visite pass for €18 - good for the RER (suburban) train between the airport and central Paris as well as the inner-city Metro - and boarded the train to St. Michel. The mostly empty train clappety-clapped along for half an hour. Despite being 7:40 AM, it was still pitch black outside. I had twelve hours until takeoff for Tel Aviv, leaving nine hours to explore, and a lot I wanted to see.
From the St. Michel stop I walked to Notre Dame. I planned to watch the sunrise there, but it was still dark when I arrived, and there was no one in the courtyard, so I walked around the neighborhood, the shops just starting to wake up, and bought a couissant and coffee for breakfast. I didn't know how to say "and," so cafe and couissant, s'il vous plait (followed by the merci I uttered dozens of times over the course of the day) had to suffice. I forgot (and didn't know how) to ask for milk and sugar in the coffee, but travel is about acquiring new tastes, so it was delicious. By that point it was getting lighter out - though with the overcast skies there wasn't really a sunrise - so I walked back along the Seine to Notre Dame, which by this point had a bustling courtyard, open doors and a lit Christmas tree. My first thought as I walked towards the entrance was that the building wasn't as big as I'd imagined it. But as soon as I entered, I realized the Gothic design, focused more on the grandeur of the interior than of the facade, masked its size from the outside. It was huge. (Look at the people in the photo for scale.) Walking around the building, past the larger-than-life statue of a victorious Charlemagne in the courtyard, I discovered that the enormous chapel is only one wing of the building. The notorious (freakish) gargoyles adorn an adjoining structure, and the rear facade is of an entirely different style than the front.
From reading the guidebook and with my interest in the subject, I had decided to focus this brief marathon tour of Paris on the architecture. I took an architectural history course two years ago, and had to memorize dozens of Parisian monuments for its exams. I have subsequently forgotten most of the dates and terms, of course, but it's always nice to see what I was learning about. So after Notre Dame - an architectural wonder by any measure - the logical next sight was the Pantheon, named and modeled after the original Pantheon in Rome. It was not a far walk, but I had to ask for directions a few times: ou la Pantheon, s'il vous plait? followed by responses I couldn't understand - but instructions for right or left turns were usually accompanied by hand motions, so I figured it out. The facade seems to copy the original building, but the dome is Renaissance. I couldn't find the entrance, however, and by this point it had started to rain, just hard enough to require the umbrella I had in my backpack, so I walked to the nearest Metro station.
Next stop: the Rodin museum. Not architectural, but ever since working in an office building several years back with a full-size replica of The Thinker in the lobby, I've admired Rodin's work. A museum also seemed a good way to get out of the rain. They had a large collection, including the originals of The Thinker, The Kiss and the Gates of Hell series, and some beautiful pieces I had never seen.
From there I boarded another train to the Eiffel Tower. According to my guidebook, it was built with 10,000 tons of iron (not sure if that's imperial or metric) and two and a half million rivets. The intricacy of the design exceeded my expectations. It was raining hard, and standing in the center of the base looking up, the water seemed to levitate under the iron as it spun around and fell. I wanted to get a ticket to the top, but the lines were too long and I had limited time, so I passed. Walking back to the metro, I discovered the city's free public bathrooms, outhouses with electric doors planted on the sidewalks. Made me think of the time in Manhattan's Chinatown that I had to walk for blocks to find a bathroom.
My next stop was supposed to be the Champs Elysees, but the otherwise easily navigable train system stumped me on that leg, and I ended up on a suburban train out of the city. Returning and finding the right way, I arrived at the Arc de Triomphe at the western end. Among the many smaller monuments around the huge square was one of Charles de Gaulle, whose role as leader of the French Resistance in World War Two I recently studied in a class. I walked down the Champs Elysees for a while, then hopped on the Metro for a shortcut. From the Clemenceau station it was a few more blocks to the eastern end of the Champs, the Place de la Concorde. The famous obelisk is there, with its hieroglyphic carvings and gold inscriptions of what appears to be advancing military technologies. Also at Concorde is a ferris wheel, which for €8 (everything seems expensive converted to dollars) gave me an amazing view of the whole city. It was probably forty degrees on the ground, though, and barely ten feet off the ground, the wind on the ferris wheel dropped the temperature a good 10 degrees. Disembarking from the ferris wheel, I bought a chocolate crepe for a lunchtime snack and walked across the gardens to the Louvre. The complex, once the palace of the French monarchy, is massive, with monuments, triumphal arches and gardens everywhere. The old and new blend in Paris, and weird post-modern art pieces were scattered around as well.
Now approaching the time I had to start heading back to the airport, I made one last stop at the Pompidou Centre, another architectural fascination. The design flips the form-function synthesis of modern architecture on it head, with the function not merely determining the form, but being the form. The steel frame, air ducts, walkways, elevators - everything that does not serve as usable space inside the building - is exposed on the outside. Though I wouldn't want ever building designed that way, I found it charming. On the back it looks like a cross between an Erector set and Discovery Zone. In the front courtyard, the line to get in went around the block, though, so I sufficed with looking through the glass wall of the ground floor into what appeared to be an architectural firm's exhibition, with models of design concepts throughout the large open space.
Back on the Metro to Gare du Nord, to catch the RER to the airport for my 6:40pm flight to Tel Aviv. A musician playing what looked like a violin with a trumpet attached got onboard and played a few songs. I already had my boarding pass, so I walked straight through to the gate, the same or a similar one as I had seen from the other direction. The terminal contained dozens of Playstation 3 demo stations, seats with laptop plugs, an illuminated dome playing New Age music offering massage services, colorful abstract shapes along the sides, shops and a children's play area. I've heard a lot of bad things about the Charles de Gaulle airport, but my impression was, this is how every airport should be designed.
Before I end, a word on transportation. The value of a good public transportation system is obviously tremendous, and it's something we in the U.S., loving our cars as we do, could use a lot more of. The Paris system, including the Metro, the RER and buses, doesn't eliminate traffic jams - my guidebook cautioned visitors against renting cars - but it does make it very convenient to get around without a car. I imagine energy consumption per passenger is much lower on a train than in a car, for what that's worth. I had expected driving to be on the left side as in England, but it was on the right. The Metro trains run on rubber wheels, so the metal screeching noise of the NYC or Boston subways is mostly gone. The city was filled with motorcycles and scooters, including many by Peugeot, another brand I don't see in Boston. Also Smart Cars, which are adorable. (I would not like to be in one in a collision with a truck, of course, but for inner-city driving and fuel economy it can't be beat.)
Traveling is great. It makes me realize that we in the U.S. take ourselves much too seriously. And really folks, Freedom Fries? The French were right about that one all along.
Maybe I'll learn French.

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